Except for the absence of tie-dye, the second annual Natural Wine Week in San Francisco could have been an event right out of 1967.

It was as well-intentioned and disorganized as a Be-In because nobody was really in charge. It’s a collective effort, with retail stores and restaurants planning their own wine tasting events—some of which didn’t really fit. There was no central schedule; instead of a website, event holders were supposed to put listings on a blog, which ended up as a haphazard message board.

And though folks in suits would mock it if they noticed it, it just might change the world.

Natural Wine Week brought together some zealots who want to overthrow the wine establishment with other folks just seeking a good time. I had to leave every tasting I attended, not because the wines weren’t interesting—they were—but because I felt crowded out by the crush of young consumers coming to see what this “natural wine” movement is all about.

What they saw was everything from Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc sold in a reusable metal water bottle to $70 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. There were wines that are obviously for true believers, like intentionally oxidized whites and no-sulfite-added reds, and other wines that were indistinguishable from, how can I put it, unnatural wines.

Wolfgang Weber

The two leaders of the weeklong Wine-Be-In were Ian Becker, wine buyer for Arlequin Wine Merchant, and Wolfgang Weber, former senior editor at Wine & Spirits, now a sales associate for Revel Wine. But neither had any control over their creation.

“Trying to herd 30 restaurants is really hard,” said Becker, relaxing outside a packed tasting at the tiny 18 Reasons, a food and art membership club. “Our budget for this is zero dollars. And we all have jobs. These are the busiest restaurants and stores in town.”

Becker did this last year with fewer events and a sharper focus. He and Weber believe the key to “natural wine” is that winemakers allow indigenous yeasts, those that occur naturally on the grapes or in the winery, to ferment the grapes no matter how long it takes, rather than adding commercial yeast to hasten the process.

“If your yeast is healthy enough to finish fermentation, it means you’re doing the right things in the vineyard,” Weber said. “You’re keeping the vines healthy.”

But unlike “organic” and “biodynamic,” which have official definitions—and growing markets—there is no universally accepted definition of “natural” wine. That makes it one of the easiest terms to co-opt, because at some level, even the most manipulated supermarket wine could be called a “natural product.”

“I don’t think The Wine Group is going to start labeling its products as ‘natural wine’,” Weber said. “That would not be good marketing. ‘Natural wine’ won’t make any sense to a consumer. In my opinion ‘natural wine’ isn’t a good term, but I don’t have a better term.”

Several people grumbled to me about other event holders including wines they don’t consider natural, but nobody wanted to be quoted. So it’s still natural wine’s 1967, with irreconcilable rifts in the collective still a year or more away.

In tasting, I tried to discern differences between natural wines and unnatural. Here are some rough guidelines of what to expect from the naturals:

  • Many have a slightly cloudy appearance because they’re unfiltered
  • White wines tend not to have fruit-driven aromas
  • Many red wines have lively, pretty aromas, often with floral and pepper notes
  • Red wines have more red-fruit notes than black-fruit
  • Many have a particularly long finish (my favorite natural-wine observation)
  • Most tend to be lower in alcohol than similar commercial wines
Trac Le

Trac Le, wine buyer for Bi-Rite Market, told me that by hit-and-run tasting I miss out on the greatest attribute of natural wines: longevity after opening.

“These wines taste better and better the second and third day,” Le said.

Because Le and others didn’t just let every natural wine producer join their party, I also missed the expected downside of natural wines—brettanomyces.

Kenny Likitprakong, owner/winemaker of Hobo, Banyan and Folk Machine wines, says that he spent two months in France earlier this year and attended a lot of natural wine tastings. He believes there are essentially two types of natural wine vintners.

“Natural wine comes down to the terroir,” said Likitprakong, who makes a fabulous Rockpile Zinfandel with just 13.8% alcohol. “People who have good land make good wine. For some people who don’t have good land, the ‘natural wine’ label is an excuse for making bad wine.”

Some of the wines I tasted were a revelation. Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah 2008 ($40) is one of the most interesting Syrahs in California: spicy, floral and complex, with red plum and pretty raspberry notes that mingle with tar, ash, and stone. It’s just 11.5% alcohol because the vineyard, mostly planted to Pinot Noir, is in a site so cool that the grapes barely get ripe enough to pick.

“We pick it in early November, but it’s only 21 brix,” said co-owner Nathan Lee Roberts. “We’re trying to ripen the stuff, but it just doesn’t accumulate sugar.”

The Natural Process Alliance Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($15) caught my eye with its reusable metal container, but I also loved the very cloudy wine—dense, intense character of apple, yellow peach, and jasmine, with a round mouthfeel. It feels like drinking a neighbor’s excellent homemade wine, and that’s not too far from the reality; the NPA bottles to order, calling Becker every Thursday to see how many bottles he wants that week.

“We tell people, this wine is to open up and drink now,” Becker said.

The Sauvignon Blanc will only last a week or so in the metal bottle. The shelf life and market reach of the natural wine movement is still to be determined, but “back to nature” is a concept that would seem to have undying appeal, even if only to a niche audience.

“What we’re trying to do here is get consumers to ask, ‘What do you consider a natural wine’?” Weber said. “The whole idea is to encourage a dialogue between winemakers and sommeliers and their customers and guests as to what makes a natural wine.”

Our only message is we want you to think? It is 1967! Groovy.

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

21 Responses

  1. Matthew@organicwinefind.com

    I wonder if the real issue is not the name ‘natural’, which when you think about it is not such a bad name — but the resistance that’s going to keep coming from the wine establishment to the idea that their wine is ‘un-natural’. And a resistance to the curtain being pulled back on how wine is really produced.

  2. Hardy


    Right on- most people don’t want to tell you how they make their juice (what they add, what they subtract, how they tweak it)– To the consumer, it is a foreign concept that wine could be more than grape juice and a little SO2.

    Does “natural” means our wine is un-natural argument is always pretty funny. By default”yes”. If you don’t like it, maybe stop tweak-boxing your juice-boxes.

  3. W. Blake Gray

    Guys, there’s no resistance that I’m aware of from the wine establishment at all. I don’t see any evidence that the big wine companies have even noticed the “natural wine” movement. In that sense, it’s more like 1963. Or maybe I’m watching too much “Mad Men.” (Can’t wait to see Don Draper tie-dyed).

    But seriously, I think Wolfgang Weber was right on target regarding the big companies’ reaction to natural wine. You guys care a lot about it. But don’t lose sight of the forest.

  4. Matthew@organicwinefind.com

    W. Blake – You don’t there will be a resistance from the wine establishment to revealing its wine making practices, as the natural wine movement continues to bring light to the issue of how wine is made?

  5. W. Blake Gray

    No, I do not. You make it sound like you’re exposing something, but I could get in my car tomorrow and take a tour of winemaking facilities owned by Constellation, Gallo or The Wine Group. They’re not secretive.

  6. Matthew@organicwinefind.com

    W. Blake – I didn’t mean to imply that it was a closely guarded secret, or that I’m exposing something. I was talking more in marketing terms. I’m not sure that the general public knows what goes into winemaking and I would imagine that if winemakers had to label their wines with ingredients or describe in detail how it was made – the idea of wine as a ‘natural’ product might be diminished. So from a marketing perspective I would guess that there would be a resistance from the establishment to this process of ‘demystification’. Perhaps you’re right and they don’t care.

  7. W. Blake Gray

    What’s so bad about the way corporate wine is made? Seriously. Maybe I prefer wine made a little more naturally, but I’m a wine geek. Does anyone but wine geeks care about oak chips and commercial yeast? It’s not like they’re draining the blood of virgins into the Cabernet.

  8. King Krak, I Drink The Wine

    Gallo doesn’t hide it’s winery in Healdsburg? Um, where exactly is the sign for for it on Dry Creek Rd?

    Amazing how you can see the other wineries along the road, but how this one, the biggest, is carefully kept from view.

    How, Blake, is the not secretive?

  9. Jon Bjork

    I really don’t think the majority of wine drinkers care all that much about how a wine is made as long as it tastes good, looks good, and is available for the right price. The very small minority of wine geeks (of which I count myself a member) want to know EVERYTHING about how a particular wine is made.

    I’ll say that for the three vintages of wine we have produced, we’ve been pretty happy without innoculating the primary fermentation, relying on the native yeast population. What I’m not happy about, however, is the steep VA climb I get as my barrels struggle to finish ML with no innoculate in the cold of December barrel rooms. We have had to de-VA to take the edge off all three years, which pretty much blows the natural intent.

    I’ll continue to go natural for primary fermentation, but I’ll be innoculating ML in the future.

    By the way, even the wine geeks don’t have natural fermentation at the top of their list of questions. It would be perhaps around question #12, after case count, vineyard location, whole cluster vs. destem, varetial composition and questions about us.

  10. W. Blake Gray

    King: You make a different point. Try asking for a tour.

    But I’m talking about the general public’s reaction to revelations about unnatural wines. Some people care a lot; most people don’t care at all.

    Keep in mind the comparison between winemaking and egg farming. I haven’t bought conventional eggs in years, but the information about chickens’ beaks being cut off and them living in their own filth has been out there, yet most Americans didn’t respond until the current salmonella threat. There’s nothing in winemaking remotely as bad as the practices in conventional animal farming.

    To me, the most repugnant aspects of commercial winemaking all have to do with conventional agriculture — yet they’re not worse than conventional agriculture for any other fruit or vegetable, and in some cases better. I can’t eat russet potatoes after reading “The Botany of Desire,” but McDonald’s sales haven’t slowed down.

  11. Skeptical

    The problem I have with this is it is completely unverified. For example, it is REALLY hard to believe Rockpile Zin at 13.8, or Sonoma Coast Syrah at 11.5. And the suggestion that this is because it is in a spot where “pinot struggles to ripen” is naive. Slow-ripening locations around here generally lead to higher alcohol (check out a Pahlmeyer Sonoma Coast Pinot!), because you wait so long for phenolics and flavor, that you get serious dehydration. In fact, check out the Clary Ranch Syrah made by Clary Ranch. Somehow they have 14.1% and this guy gets 11.5? http://www.claryranch.com/pdf/2006-Shazzam-Fact-Sheet.pdf. Even 14.1% is low for this location!

  12. Skeptical

    Well, probably not. What I meant is that the wine most likely had alcohol reduction. I haven’t paid much attention to this natural wine thing, but I kind of assumed that would be forbidden.

  13. Darek Trowbridge

    Large wineries don’t want “Natural Wine” (I agree we need a better term) to be part of the consumers conversation because there is a very long laundry list of additives to wine that they don’t care to be known by the enthusiastic customer. Not that it would create a scare (I agree with W. Blake Grey that what is in the vineyard is more worrysome) because these items are “Generally recognised as safe” and are added mostly for ease of filtration, fining, etc., but once a customer questions the additives the winery has to deal with a purity issue. For instance: is this customer going to think my wine is less pure because of the “Natural Wine” movement? When I pour my Native Yeast Wines next to conventional but well meaning wineries and the Native Yeast topic comes up they don’t like to say they use WADY (Wine Activated Freeze Dried Yeast) that was selected for its fermentation abilities or singular flavor profile, it makes them look less pure even though that is not my intention – I am just trying to explain what it is that I do. And I guess I am trying to create a naturally pure wine with the least amount of additives!

  14. J. Webb

    Having made home wine and beer for over 10 years, as well as commercial wine for nearly as long the definition I use is, Wild Yeast and Wild Malo, unfinned and unfiltered and no ingredients other than sulfur. The first time I made beer I was amazed and the quantity of little packets of ingredients, upon further research I did not add any of them.
    I think that once wine beer and spirits are required to list ingredients there will be a wave of consumers looking for more natural wines. It is the only product you buy to put into your body that does not list those things.
    Who really wants wine with concentrate, mega purple, egg whites, isinglass, etc in it?? There was a allergen labeling bill that passed in 2003 and somehow the big wine beer and spirits companies got and exception from this law.